School Dinners, then and now, healthy?

Recently school meals have been in the news after Jeremy Corbyn (Labour Leader) suggested that free school dinners should be extended to cover all primary school aged children. On the BBC News website he is quoted to have said “All too often teachers see the impact that hunger has on their pupils. It affects their concentration and ability to learn and their physical and mental health and wellbeing. The benefits of a healthy and nutritious school lunch are well documented,”. While I appreciate this may well be the case I would like to question how healthy school meals actually are.

School meals vary from school to school and there can be a huge difference in areas too. The government guidelines on what schools must offer are very vague and can be found here. As a result schools can comply with the guidelines but still not necessarily be providing particularly healthy meals. Whilst Jamie Oliver made a lot of changes and schools rarely now offer the processed poor quality meats like the infamous turkey twizzlers there are still questions I would like to raise.
Anyone else remember these trays? they came in at the end of my primary school days!

What do you remember from your days of school dinners?

I remember most meals being potatoes, meat and a few vegetables with lots of gravy. All the meals had a pudding which was either cake and custard of varying colours or a rice pudding type of dish. I have never had semolina, tapioca or lumpy rice pudding since school! I went to quite an old fashioned catholic school in the late 80’s. Stuart, my boyfriends memories of his primary school meals are flapjacks, chocolate puddings, custard with a skin on the top and main courses including chips, Christmas dinners and very chewy meat. Secondary schools have always been a little different with there being more pupils and therefore more variety and quicker to cook meals available.

I asked some blogger friends what their memories are of their school meals and had similar responses.

Samantha remembers “In the 80s a typical lunch for me was sandwich spread spread/paste sandwich, bag of space raider crisps, a bottle of juice and a chocolate biscuit. No fruit in site! I wouldn’t dream of that!”

Mince and Dumplings

Emma remembers “School dinners for me were things like Spam Fritters, Fish Fingers, Mince & Dumplings, etc. I hated them but wasn’t allowed to have a packed option as I was on free school meals as a child. I’d often just have an apple and a glass of juice. That said, on the days they did a pie or sponge pudding I’d always tuck in. The kitchen cooks at my school were mums and I felt there was a homely feel to a lot of the meals.”

The restrictions now on having vending machines and ice cream vans in schools must make a difference too looking at Laura’s memories. “When I was in primary and had packed lunch I remember sandwiches, cucumber chunks and a yoghurt. Usually a juice box too. School dinners were burgers, sausage rolls or a cooked meal that no one had. You could also get doughnuts, cream buns or cookies for desert. And milkshake made with syrup. My primary school tried to go healthier in my final year but I can’t remember what they switched to! Secondary I just ate turkey burgers and then went to the ice cream van that parked up in our playground”

Sponge Pudding

Debbie talks about her recollections “School dinners for me at primary school were stodgy but as soon as I went to secondary school we had a cafeteria system with salad bar and lots of different options and fruit. Really lucky for late 80s!”

Helena has different memories from most about her school meals “School dinners were lovely when I was at primary school and all homemade (even the ketchup).”

Emma also has fond memories, “I loved my primary school lunches. Traditional meat and 2 veg, shepherds pie and those kind of things. With chocolate rock cake, semolina, blancmange, sponge and custard for pudding. All traditional and stodge (we’re talking 30-35 years ago!)”

Mary like me remembers different coloured custards, “I think the kids these days have far more chance to try something different in junior school with school dinners than I did in the 1970’s. It was all meat and two veg, and a series of hideous puddings covered in pink or shocking yellow lumpy custard and strawberry milk. I’d much rather have my son’s school dinners!”

Yellow Lumpy Custard

Leanne said “My daughter isn’t in school yet so no packed lunches for me but I always remember when I was in comp we would have a treat lunch once a week with a pot noodle and chocolate chip muffin – you’d never get that now!”

Looking back at my memories and those of others I guess there has been a lot of changes and children at schools nowadays do have a rather different experience and probably don’t even know what tapioca and semolina are, never mind the green custard!

What are school dinners like today?

My son has always had school meals and between his current and previous schools there has been a reasonable mixture available with a choice of at least two options per day. Oh how I wish I had a choice when I was at school, the only option we had was eat it or leave it! On the whole I would say I am relatively happy with how healthy the options he has are though there are some questions I would like to raise. Before considering these I wanted to see what other parents thought about their children’s school meals and whether my thoughts were similar to other parents.

Carol talking about her primary school ages children says “My kids have school dinners, and try so many more things because of it. They have a fantastic school cook and a great system of choices including a salad bar with wraps & sandwich rolls if they don’t fancy the cooked option. They are given guidance about different healthy choices too. A far cry from the mass-produced slops I used to have at school!”

“A far cry from the mass-produced slops”

Emma says “My son has school meals now but as a teenager he always goes for the unhealthy options that are on offer like burgers and pizzas. I think it’s disappointing it is more like fast food now without a personal touch. Then again, cooking for 1500 kids must be tough!”

It is not always as simple as which foods we prefer though, Amy sends her son with his own lunch, “My son (5) has food issues and won’t eat anything “wet”, so won’t touch school dinners since everything comes in gravy/sauce with no option for plain. He has packed lunches usually: snacking meat (fridge raiders or cocktail sausages), crisps, fruit and yogurt.”

Jaymee from shares her sons school menu

Samantha choses to send her children with a packed lunch “my children have a sandwich, 2 portions of fruit (usually mixed berries and an apple or banana), a bottle of water, a yoghurt and a treat on alternative days (e.g. A slice of cake). My children attend Primary school and I think packed lunches are healthier than a school lunch which often includes chips, fried foods, fast food such as pizza and stodgy puddings.


A different way of looking at it comes from Rachel who says “My eldest alternates between school dinners and packed lunches, depending on how organised I’ve been! He usually takes a ham sandwich, a banana, some crisps and a yoghurt. Sometimes takes a small chocolate bar. It’s probably similar to what I had as a kid. Not the healthiest but he eats it all and I just want him to have a full tummy to get him through the day.”

Debbie has tried both school dinners and packed lunches with her boys, “My boys have both had school dinners until this year but there did seem to be a different variety of chip on the menu each day – chips, roasted, wedges, country potatoes!….Now though they have packed lunches. Usually wraps, satsuma or grapes, homemade pizza whirls, and homemade date bars. And a bottle of water. They much prefer them to school dinners now.”

“I just want him to have a full tummy”

Emma is very happy with her child’s school meals and reading her views I can see why! “Now, N has free school lunches and his school have meat free Mondays, then a choice of red band (meat), green (veggie) or blue (pasta/baked spud/soup/baguette depending on time of year). They rotate around a 3 weekly menu each full term and we order in advance online. Choices are much more exotic – they have themed days, then have traditional roasts and main meals, but added to that have Italian pizza and pasta, Chinese stir fries, curries, Mexican, and so many more meals than he’d have at home (because my other half is really boring about food cuisines). They always have a homemade pudding – cake, biscuit or something else, and there’s salad/veg to have alongside their meals.”

Are puddings necessary?

Ben’s current school dinner menu

My son Ben has similar choices to those described by Emma above, I am happy there is a choice there and that there is fruit and vegetables on every meal as this is in my view so important however I would still question the need for a pudding. In my opinion however there is no need for a pudding every lunch time and fruit is more than adequate. I would also like to know whether the meat they use is the lowest fat available and if they deep fry food as in my opinion this is not necessary at all.

Are free meals for all primary children needed?

Whilst I think the idea of giving all children free school meals at primary school is a great idea I think the notion that this is because it is healthier than packed lunches is very wrong. I think there is a huge variety at present as to what children have to chose from in primary schools with very little legislation and this is something that should be addressed first including the need for puddings daily. I also think that by suggesting that children should have school meals every day because it is deemed healthier is implying that parents are not giving their children a balanced diet who send in packed lunches. There are of course some examples that have been in the media of less than healthy lunches some children take to school however I believe this is the minority.
In my eyes the priority should be making school meals more affordable, £2.29 a day is quite expensive compared to making lunches yourself, if they want more parents to chose school dinners this could be addressed. Also I think stricter guidelines on school dinners and assurances for parents that the good quality low fat meats are used etc would be helpful. I also believe that the money would be better spent on offering free fruit for children in schools at break times every day.
What are your views?

What do your child’s school offer?

I would love to know about what your child is offered at school and what you think to the suggestions of free school meals for all primary school children. Do you think enough is being done to ensure our children have healthy food in schools? Could schools do more? What do you remember from your school days? Please do comment and let me know what you think and share your memories!

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